Friday, 3 May 2013

Kids Struggling to Write With a Pencil Because They Use Tech So Much

Primary school children in Australia are reported to be struggling to write with a pencil because they use tablets and other tech so much. The article reports that children are lacking in the fine-motor control and hand strength needed for writing and that this causes them to struggle at school. It's a good read and covers the importance of physical activity too.

It's easy to jump in and blame the use of tablets and computers and say kids should spend more time in more traditional activities, but I think that's the wrong approach to take for two reasons:

  1. Using the right technology in the right way can actually help children to develop writing skills and keep them motivated.
  2. We're living in the tech age. Let's not dismiss the importance of tech skills. Some time does need to be allocated to learning keyboard skills and good computer posture. Maybe hand writing isn't quite as important as it used to be.
I agree that kids do struggle with writing and not just in Australia. I help out at a local school and certainly see this, but I'm not in a position to see how this has changed over time. It's clear that kids who find it hard to write are going to find school work more tiring and frustrating.

The importance of being able to hand write is something I'm certainly aware of and I make sure my own kids spend some time drawing and writing on paper as well as on gadgets - both are necessary skills these days in my opinion.  They have also spent many times longer playing with LEGO than they have with any gadget which is also good for fine motor control. 

However, I think a lot of the tech-time has also been useful for contributing to the skill of wielding a pencil effectively. At my kids' school a lot of the writing is on mini whiteboards to save paper and create less waste. In my opinion, this feels very similar to writing on a tablet with a stylus. So maybe encouraging the use of a stylus can make a positive difference. My younger son uses his LeapPad2 with a stylus all the time - it's how he is learning to form his letters correctly. And there's a new LeapFrog electronic LeapReader pen coming out that teaches kids to write with correct letter formation.

Some schools are even starting to use Boogie Boards which are electronic writing devices that have more of the feel of pen and paper. I can see this kind of technology becoming more widespread.

So I don't think it's about whether kids use technology but rather which technology they use.

I'm sure we'll be seeing more and more educational tech toys that help kids to develop fine motor control. And I think there are lots of reasons why using tablets is good for little kids too. Kids aren't less skilled than they used to be if they are using interactive content on a tablet - they're differently skilled.

As kids get older they will naturally be spending more time typing rather than writing. And there are other interfaces like swipe, voice and gesture which are becoming more popular. I don't see this as a problem. It's appropriate for the age we live in and the job market they are heading towards.

One of the problems with kids spending less time writing is that when they are older they find in hard to produce large amounts of text in an exam or classroom setting. At some point I think we are going to have to accept that typing (and in future maybe gesture control or even mind control) are appropriate in these situations once kids have mastered writing to a reasonable level.

Let's face it, how many adults can write by hand for several hours without their hands hurting. I certainly can't! Typing is a far more useful skill in the modern world.

I'm certainly not ready for my kids to drop handwriting skills altogether. But I think keyboard skills are important too. Particularly good posture and technique to avoid problems like RSI.

If kids are only using handwriting in school and spend the rest of their time using gadgets don't we need to shift our focus to teaching them to use the gadgets well and with good technique?

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